Originally created 08/05/96

Winning the lottery is like an earthquake



Tears well from Kevin Thomas' dark eyes when he thinks about all the money he won last August and how it may change him into a man he doesn't want to be.

He believes he's the same guy who went to bed one night struggling to pay the bills and woke a millionaire. Almost every day people try to tell him he's not.

"I don't want to become somebody I'm not," Mr. Thomas said. "I wouldn't forget where I come from."

It'll be a year Tuesday since Mr. Thomas, and his wife, Angela, realized their life in Belvedere had changed. They won $9 million by chance in the Georgia Lottery the night before on Aug. 5.

They are one of the 73 winners of the Lotto jackpot since the game started in September 1993. The $9 million is the game's 10th largest single prize, lottery officials said.

Life as lottery winners has been a mixture of good and bad, relief and burden, the couple said. They're thrilled with their luck. They know those six ping pong balls bearing their numbers were a blessing.

Mr. Thomas retired his mother who worked 20 years at a gas station convenience store. Ms. Thomas quit her job at Veterans Affairs where she was a health benefits advisor, a job she said had become too stressful.

She now spends the time she never had watching their kids grow. She also takes better care of herself and has lost about 60 pounds.

Mr. Thomas plans to quit his job at DSM Chemical Corp. where he started 20 years ago, just out of North Augusta High School. He'll go to college and eventually start a business.

If the Thomases are wise, the $295,000 a year after taxes they'll get for the next 20 years will give them security that escaped them most of their lives. They're both 38.

They've bought a few luxuries. She surprised him on their anniversary with the Jeep he's always wanted. They built an entertainment room with a big screen television and pool table where the garage used to be. The huge fake $9 million check that the lottery people gives winners hangs on the room's new wall.

They plan to take their three kids, Charles, 17, Brandie, 15, and Jessica, 12, to Disney World.

But their habits haven't changed much.

She still shops with coupons. She still plays $5 a week on the same lottery, using quick pick numbers. They go out to dinner and a movie a little more.

But it's the temptation all that money offers that helps keep the Thomases restrained. They'd like to be able to wipe out the tough history that has dogged both their families. This lottery money is that chance.

"I don't want to blow that," Mr. Thomas said. "We've got a chance to improve the lives of our kids and their kids. I don't want to fizzle it out in 20 years and say `sorry, that's it."'

This lottery story is really a love story that started five years ago when two divorced strangers met on a honky tonk dance floor.

Ms. Thomas had two kids. Months before, she'd lost both parents, who raised her on a Thomson farm. Her father, a carpenter, worked himself to death, she said. Her mother slipped away about 48 hours later after a long bout with a terminal disease. Ms. Thomas had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Mr. Thomas grew up a military kid looking for stability. His first marriage didn't provide it and he had two kids. Both their lives were in a valley at the time they had that first dance.

The Thomases married, lived in a trailer for a while and later moved into their modest "dream home" in a neighborhood where cars are parked on the street. They've lived there three years and have no plans to move.

"We somehow found each other and things began to click," Mr. Thomas said. "My luck didn't start until I met her."

That luck has brought problems. Winning the lottery and the publicity that followed has made the Thomases feel more vulnerable to a world where money is seen as the cure to people's woes.

The phone calls have died down some. In the months following their good fortune strangers in trouble, con men, car salesmen, charities and others seeking a piece of their fortune kept their phone ringing.

The Thomases didn't want to change their phone number. It was part of the identity they have struggled to keep separate from this lottery phenomena. Instead they got caller identification to screen calls.

They've heard people trying to break in their house at night. They installed an alarm system.

Barely before the euphoria of being millionaires set in, the family had to start assembling a group of accountants, stock brokers, lawyers and financial advisers to plan their life and death with this money.

"It was very rattling," Ms. Thomas said, who was so poor after her divorce she had to live with her mother-in-law. "The dream (of the lottery) is one thing, the reality is another. The money solves some of your problems, but it creates a whole new set of problems."

Mr. Thomas didn't want to quit his job, in part because it was stability in a life he felt might change because of the money. And he still had bills to pay. But going to work isn't easy these days.

It's not so much the work, he says. It's the way some co-workers respond to him. They remind him almost daily in subtle and other ways he is not like them, he is rich, a lottery winner.

"The job is fun," Mr. Thomas said. "It's the people that make it difficult. A lot of people are jealous. They won't talk to me. They just turn their back."

The Thomases said they are starting to deal with their new life. Things have settled after the wrenching of the past year.

They want stability for their family. They hope the money will help fuel that stability, which in some ways has been threatened during the past year.

"Winning the lottery is like an earthquake," Ms. Thomas said. "I've dealt with the shock waves. I'm ready to start making a life out of what this is."